Verona Area School District administrative building March 2020

The outside of the Verona Area School District administration building.

Usually, Verona Area School District staff are the ones who assign math problems, but with COVID-19 regulations expected to remain in place at the start this fall, staff are being required to solve a problem of their own.

It goes something like this: If a district has around 5,700 students and 11 school sites, but county and state health recommendations suggest having no more than 15 students on a bus and at 50% capacity in the classroom at a time, how does it conduct education?

There have been no decisions made yet, but superintendent Dean Gorrell predicts the district, along with every other school district in Dane County, will need to plan for a hybrid model of education, with a mix of in-person and virtual learning each week.

“Just like any weather forecaster who’s predicting severe weather, they hope they’re wrong – I hope I’m wrong with my prediction,” he said. “Everything that we are hearing, everything that we are reading, from multiple sources at the federal, state, local level is pointing to a hybrid type model.”

District staff discussed options for reopening with the school board at the board’s Monday, June 1, meeting, based on current and anticipated health guidelines. No matter what the board decides the district should do, Gorrell said, the final decision will fall somewhere on a continuum in which officials will judge risk.

On the lower end, there’s virtual learning and no in-person schooling, with each step that increases the amount of in-person schooling and fewer restrictions making the risk of spreading infection greater, Gorrell said.

Risk will be judged based on nine consideration points, including the health and safety of staff and students, the continuity of learning for students and social and emotional needs.

Gorrell said he has asked about capacity guidance on a local and state level, but hasn’t gotten an answer because the county is waiting to match the guidance the state Department of Health Services puts out.

“How many kids can you put in a classroom? How many kids can you put on a bus? Because it may be that transportation (and) how many kids you can get on a bus at a time drives every other decision point,” he said. “We’re kind of spinning our wheels here, and it’s not just us. It’s every other school district in the state of Wisconsin.”

Current DHS guidance suggests schools reduce capacity by 50%, which would likely require students to come to school on a staggered schedule each week. For the district, that might look like a Monday-Tuesday or Thursday-Friday schedule, with every Wednesday made into a virtual learning day that allows for the school buildings to be deep-cleaned.

Site principals have begun to consider which communal spaces in their buildings could be used as classrooms to help spread students out and make reducing class sizes easier, assistant superintendent for academic services Laurie Burgos said.

Guidance on busing also suggests having no more than 15 students on a bus at a time so social distancing can be practiced. With each route costing the district around $55,000 to run, adding more might not be a feasible financial option.

“Just reducing the number of passengers per school bus puts us in a predicament,” Burgos said. “It really limits how many students can come to school.”

Burgos said the district can’t just group certain neighborhoods together for the days students would get in-person schooling, because that could lead to a segregated school system based on where the city’s ethnic breakout tends to live within the boundaries.

To avoid that, district data specialist Brad Humphrey has been working with data on attendance areas and busing routes to calculate how the district could get students to school while mitigating additional costs.

Whatever recommendation district staff bring forward to the school board, Burgos said, it will have been created with research on what other districts around the county, state and nation are doing, as well as trying to follow health guidelines as closely as feasible.

“We’re trying to do as much work as we can – without doing too much work, only to have to recalibrate or, let’s put it frankly, scrap it and start over, if new guidance were to come out,” she said.

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kimberly.wethal@wcinet.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.